BALTIMORE — On the night after looters tore up his neighborhood, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings stood between a raucous crowd and a phalanx of police officers in riot gear. The congressman raised a bullhorn and urged people to get indoors.
Someone cursed at him, and then others joined in, but Cummings (D-Md.) appeared unfazed. He returned to the West Baltimore intersection each of the next four nights repeating the same message.
“Let’s go home,” Cummings said. “Let’s go home.”
An 11-term congressman known for his soaring oratory, Cummings has ascended the heights of influence at the Capitol, where his oversight duties include national security and the Secret Service.
Yet for all his prestige, Cummings found himself helpless last Monday as rioters swarmed the part of Baltimore he refers to as the “inner inner city” — the neighborhoods he represents and where he lives.
The unrest occurred as Cummings, 64, has reached a political crossroads, tempted by the prospect of running to succeed retiring Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.). A victory in that race could make him only the 10th African American to serve in the U.S. Senate.
Yet the gravity of Baltimore’s searing social troubles may compel him to remain in the House of Representatives, championing his district’s outsize needs, as he did during the riot and after, a blend of compassion and command.
On Friday morning, Cummings was at the Capitol, only to race back to Baltimore as the city’s chief prosecutor announced charges against six officers who took Freddie Gray into custody.
The next night, as curfew approached, he was at the corner of Pennsylvania and North avenues in West Baltimore, urging that everyone go home.
“We came here because we love you,” the congressman shouted.
“This is a beautiful Saturday night,” he said. “People want to enjoy themselves. I wish I could lift the curfew, but that is above my pay grade.”
The following morning, the city’s mayor did just that.
When the looting began, hours after Gray’s funeral, Cummings was at Howard University in Washington, co-hosting with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) a forum about college debt.
His first thought was, “I’ve got to get back home,” he said. “I felt like my house was being broken into.”
All week, Cummings shuttled between the Capitol and his neighborhood streets, each night carrying a white bullhorn with a gold label that reads, “The gentleman will not yield.” (It was a gift from Democratic colleagues after a Republican foe, Rep. Darrell Issa of California, cut off Cummings’s microphone at a hearing last year.)
Baltimore is personal for Cummings, the city where he grew up and has spent all his life. He lives a short distance from where police apprehended Gray, 25, before loading him into the van in which authorities say he suffered fatal injuries.
The congressman is a ubiquitous presence in his neighborhood, absorbing tales of constituents’ hardship, including the 16-year-old who recently told him, “Mr. Cummings, sometimes I feel like I’m in my casket, clawing to get out.”
“Some of these young people I’ve known since they were like 1 year old,” Cummings said. “I’ve seen them. I’ve talked to them.”
The congressman cried on national television describing the sense of hopelessness that pervades his neighborhood and how “the entire country has to take a warning from this.”
“Baltimore,” he said, “can happen anywhere.”
On the morning of April 27, he was speaking at Gray’s funeral, recounting how four years ago “I put my nephew in the grave” after he was fatally shot. “Still don’t know who did it,” Cummings told the crowd, his face twisted with grief. “I mourn every day.”
He contemplated the line of cameras trained on Gray’s casket, showering worldwide attention on a man who lived his short life in obscurity.
“Did anyone recognize Freddie when he was alive?” the congressman demanded, his voice a mix of outrage and despair.
“Did you see him?” he thundered. “Did you see him? Did you see him?”
Cummings’s parents were South Carolina sharecroppers who moved to Baltimore hoping to escape poverty. His father worked at a chemical factory and preached on the weekends. His mother raised their seven children.
As a child, Cummings helped integrate a local swimming pool and endured whites throwing bottles and rocks in protest. A local civil rights lawyer, Juanita Jackson Mitchell, took an interest in him and inspired him to go to law school.
Cummings was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates in the early 1980s and served for 14 years. When Kweisi Mfume relinquished his congressional seat in 1996, Cummings defeated more than two dozen Democrats who ran to succeed him. His district includes portions of Baltimore, Baltimore County and Howard County.
In Congress, he is the ranking Democrat on the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, where he has drawn attention by challenging Republicans as they examine Hillary Rodham Clinton’s handling of the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, when she was secretary of state.
Over the years, the congressman’s mismanagement of his own finances has made him the target of unflattering scrutiny, including during the mid-1990s, when he failed to pay $30,000 in federal taxes. Yet, Cummings has not faced a competitive race since joining Congress, typically winning more than 75 percent of the vote when he seeks reelection.
“Nobody is going to beat Elijah Cummings in Baltimore,” said state Del. Talmadge Branch (D-Baltimore). “He always talks from his heart, and that’s why people love him here.”
After Mikulski announced her retirement from the Senate, a gaggle of Maryland Democrats considered running to succeed her. At the moment, Reps. Donna F. Edwards of Prince George’s County and Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County are the only two who have declared their candidacies.
A poll Cummings commissioned showed him with a 6-point lead in a three-way primary. But his victory is far from assured against two savvy opponents who are racking up endorsements and donations.
Asked whether he is likely to run, Cummings said he hasn’t been thinking about the Senate campaign of late, particularly since Gray’s death.
“I’ve been more concentrating on how do I keep people safe,” he said.
His friends say he’s unsure of his path. He is aware of the risk of losing, they say, and of how much he enjoys his role in Congress, even though Democrats there are virtually powerless under the current Republican majority, and senators — including freshmen — have more opportunity to shape legislation and build a national profile.
Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a longtime friend, said the congressman recently told him, “I don’t know if I want to give [Congress] up to be a back-bencher in the Senate.”
“I don’t think he pulls the trigger,” Miller said last week. “But if he does, he’d be a very formidable candidate.”
Cummings’s visibility in the aftermath of the riots could make his name even more recognizable outside Baltimore, including in the Washington suburbs represented by Van Hollen and Edwards.
“If he gets in the race, he instantly becomes the front-runner,” said former Maryland attorney general Douglas Gansler, who ran for governor last year.
At the same time, Gansler said, Cummings’s efforts might not help him with certain parts of the Maryland electorate, including conservative white Democrats who may not “want the guy in the street being my senator.”
“He becomes inextricably linked to Baltimore city,” Gansler said. “I don’t think it helps him politically, necessarily.”
What makes Cummings compelling, Gansler said, “is that I don’t think that enters his mind.”
More than 72 hours after the riots started, the congressman again arrived at Pennsylvania and North avenues, bullhorn in hand as he surveyed the crowd. A line of police officers in riot gear was in position.
Someone hugged Cummings. Another told him he should run for mayor.
“I’d die for my people,” Cummings told reporters.
A man shouted, “I appreciate you coming out here, congressman, but we need to hear some truth.”
Cummings linked arms with a state senator and a dozen others, all of them set to let the crowd know that curfew was coming, and it was time to go.
First, the congressman offered a prayer for “a city that is not perfect but is moving towards perfection.” Then they marched, with Cummings leading everyone in “This Little Light of Mine.”
“What light?” a man demanded, cursing what he described as the “Kumbaya” atmosphere.
The congressman kept marching, shouting three times into his bullhorn, “There’s love in our hearts” before he was done for the night.
Everyone, he said, needed to get home.